A diet without a menu: the Polk School Board's unStrategic unPlan

The Polk County School District has a 2014-2018 Strategic Plan that is neither strategic nor a plan. It's one of the many exploding gifts Kathryn LeRoy left behind for us to disarm.

Nevertheless, the School Board is meeting today in a retreat to "review and update" this so-called Strategic Plan. So I want to explain to you -- and board members -- why it's a useless document that we should throw out and start over again.

Key points:

1) Complexity and length: The so-called Strategic Plan suffers from the same disease of so much of current Polk District culture: pointless complexity that creates high-cost work with no value. It runs for 46 ponderous pages. That is much too long and dense for any parent or community stakeholder or even district employee to meaningfully internalize and use.

2) Goals without plans: More remarkable than length is the lack of strategy content. 41 of the 46 pages are crammed full of numerical goals for dozens of metrics. I counted about 80 in total. But none of these come with a plan for actually achieving the goal. They just set the goal and move on.

Let me show you what I mean. What you see below is the Strategic Plan's goal/metric for the overall "grade" of the district.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.46.12 AM

Within five years, we declared in 2014, we would earn enough "points" from the state to rise from an overall C-grade to an overall A-grade. We would increase from 440 "points" to 535. How would this happen? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It's like a diet without a menu. We might as well say: I'm going to lose 30 pounds by saying I'm going to lose 30 pounds. The entire "strategic plan" is like this.

In fairness, if you ask the right person and at the right time, you can find a sort of implementation document from 2014. But it's not attached to the Strategic Plan, which itself requires a search of the district's website to find. And it doesn't tie directly into the metrics that make up the "plan." We're so proud of our Strategic Plan that we hide it and any enabling documents from any of our key website landing pages or menu options.

3) Measurement without thought: I doubt we've met many, if any, of the Strategic Plan goals. In many cases, that's because they are stupid goals.

Consider the "A" district goal above. The number one thing to understand about school and district grades is that our teachers, administrators, and students cannot control school and district grades. The state sets the definition and equation for school and district grades. These change constantly. More than that, the state constantly changes the inputs that make up the equation. Perhaps the most important way is through the use of "cut scores" to divide up groups of kids by scores "achievement" levels. That makes it easy to engineer school grades up or down at the state level.

4) Bubble kids: It also creates powerful incentive at the local level to focus more attention on kids who are close to the edge of the next achievement level. I've heard repeated testimony about so-called "bubble kids" during the last few months. Kids whose numbers place them in the middle of a level aren't as valuable to school grades, potentially.

Polk's district-level obsession with useless measurement -- which is a reaction to the state's obsession with pointless measurement -- creates this perverse incentive. If your kid has the misfortune to read in the middle of Level 4, he or she creates a powerful disincentive for attention. A "bubble kid" reading at the top of level 2 or 3 poses a much better personal investment of time for a teacher or principal.

Bad incentives make bad policy, which harms the experience for everyone. Our Strategic Plan, where we even pay attention to it, creates many thoughtless incentives that harm the experience.

My incumbent opponent often talks about the Strategic Plan as one of his key accomplishments. This shows yet again how committed he is to the status quo. Rather than demand that district administration fix its broken testing system or replace destructive School Board Attorney Wes Bridges, the School Board is doubling down on a document that has no value.

Instead of thinking about how to create a district culture of transparency and responsiveness and customer service, top Polk administrators have no doubt been spending hours chasing down our actual performance against these 80 or so metrics. I suspect they will report them today, and then we'll forget them again. This is all time and money wasted.

5. Technology strategy and the contracting status quo: And speaking of status quo and strategic plans, we've got a new one underway for technology that you almost certainly have not heard about. A local technology vendor called DSM recently received a non-competitive contract to develop it. You'll be shocked to learn that Kathryn LeRoy signed it on her own authority back in 2015 without needing board approval, according to the district PR office.

[Clarification: Because of confusion with the School District over what work is past and which is future, I have edited this portion.]

Acting on a tip, I asked the district about this strategic plan contract on June 20. I then made reference to it at a campaign forum last week. Now, more than $400,000 worth of DSM work is going before the Polk School District tomorrow. That seems odd - or maybe not odd at all.

DSM has been working on this strategic plan since August of 2015. We've already paid them thousands of dollars. Why are we ratifying this new work now, but not the strategic plan work it comes from?

DSM's founder and CEO, David Robinson, a self-described "visionary," is also a major donor to my incumbent opponent's campaign. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But this does seem to be an example of the status quo in contracting. And the lack of transparency is strikingly similar to the failed Local Instructional Information System (LIIS) project.

I'll give you the full DSM rundown tomorrow in advance of the meeting.

For now, we should rethink our concept of strategic plans. They should track 4 or 5 realistic key goals in key areas such as: graduation rate, teacher retention, student retention at individual schools, and perhaps performance against enrollment prediction for median test score in reading and math. I'll flesh these out a bit as the campaign unfolds.

But we can't do any of that until we force a change in the cultural status quo at the district. That's what's at the heart of this election. If you want to help us, please consider contributing and volunteering.

You can do that from this link.